March 17th, 2010


The Irish connection to the Yugoslav Partisans

It being St Patrick's Day, I am going to post about the city of Tuzla, where I spent my first night in Bosnia back in early 1997. Looking around the office of my newly acquired colleagues, I spotted a map of the city - I think it may even have been this one. I had not studied much Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian at the time, but one word I did know was "Irac", meaning "Irishman". And I immediately spotted that one of the suburbs of Tuzla, off to the west of the city, rejoices in the name of "Irac".

I asked my Bosnian colleagues how this had come about, but they professed ignorance, other than confirming that "Irac" does indeed mean "Irishman", and so I left the issue as one of many intriguing mysteries about the country.

Well, I have come a little closer to resolving it. The street name next to the place name on the map is "Ivana Markovića Irca", and a little digging leads me to a Serbian Wikipedia page about Ivan Marković "Irac", a Partisan fighter during the second world war - Tuzla was always proud of its Partisan tradition, and Marković was a local boy from Gračanica, northwest of Tuzla - and was eventually hunted down by the Chetniks in 1942 a few km to the east of the city, so obviously the glorious people's planners of a later decade decided to commemorate him. There appears to be a school (maybe two schools, I'm not sure) named after him in Špionica farther to the north.

The Wikipedia page does not, however, explain how he got his nickname, and I remain puzzled. Just for context, I note that he was a Bosnian Croat. It is not easy to dig into this when my command of the language is rather basic and when there are lots of other people with the same or similar names - such as for instance the Slovak intellectual Ivan Markovič who died in Buchenwald two years after his near namesake was killed on the Bosnian mountainside. So the mystery, though now slightly enriched, remains.

March Books 16) Wandering Star, by J.M.G. Le Clézio

When Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of years ago, I had never heard of him. This is much his most easily obtainable book, and it was also strongly endorsed by saare_snowqueen, so I had been looking forward to reaching it.

I was very impressed. Le Clézio tells the story of Esther, a Jewish girl displaced from France over the Alps to Italy and eventually to Israel in the mid-1940s; her story briefly touches on that of Nejda, a Palestinian girl who becomes a refugee as a result of the 1948 conflict. The book is beautifully expressive of both the geographical landscapes of the Alps and Palestine, and of the psychological landscape of displacement, homelessness, and building new ties. I did wish we had learned more about what happens to Nejda in the end, and was a bit disappointed that the last few chapters were about Esther's life decades later. But the pluses outweigh the minuses. I am still hoping for an English translation of Le Clézio's Désert, which is about the Western Sahara.

Australian residents please note

My colleague Carne Ross is on ABC National's radio show 'Future Tense' this morning (Thursday 18th, by the time you read this) at 0830, repeated Friday 19th at 1230. Details and downloadable extract here.

(Also downloadable for non-Australian residents who may be interested.)